Why so cynical? The potential benefit of slacktivism

Slacktivism: another horrific millennial term (almost as bad in fact as ‘millennial’). The expression refers to an action that supports a cause, but with minimal effort – a recent example would be ‘checking in’ on Facebook to the Standing Rock reservation.

Activity such as this has a divisive reaction. Some argue that even the smallest of actions are better than none, but others are condemning them as superficial and ineffective. The debate brings up further questions about social activism, including the ‘gap yah effect’ and the ‘reductive seduction of other people’s problems’ – a criticism of the young and privileged thinking they personally can solve the world’s biggest issues.

However, a pessimistic outlook rarely does anyone much good. A more pragmatic approach to social issues and a recognition that slacktivism isn’t necessarily detrimental could well be beneficial.

‘Reductive seduction’ was coined by Courtney Martin on The Development Set, a blog dedicated to global health and social impact. In her article, Martin describes the irony of a sect of the young and privileged who, keen to make an impression on the world, become social entrepreneurs and travel to far-flung countries to provide urgent aid – only, in many cases, for it all to grind to a halt when the realisation dawns that some solutions are just not that simple. An example Martin gives is PlayPump, a device produced in 2006 that functioned both as a roundabout and a producer of clean water. Not only were multiple PlayPumps defunct by 2007, it was estimated that it would take 27 hours a day to yield the amount of water originally promised.

This is seemingly the next step up from the ‘gap yah’ or, more specifically, ‘voluntourism’. Marketed as a way to simultaneously travel, gain life experience and do good, the premise of the ‘volunteer abroad’ gap year is promising, but the launch of a YouTube spoof by Matt Lacey in 2010 brought forth an unfortunate stigma that has never really shifted. It has been argued that the whole idea is significantly flawed; if you can’t build a hut in Britain, you won’t be able to build a hut in Uganda. Tales of ultimate failure (including the locals having to take down and rebuild volunteer-built structures overnight) and the issue of supply and demand (people demand to volunteer, but since they have no relevant skills there is no supply for them) arguably make a farce out of the whole concept. When it comes to solving major world problems, idealistic thinking is not the way forward.

This brings us back to slacktivism, a more localised – and less expensive – way to show support for any number of causes. The problem is that the turnover on social media is brutal (remember Kony 2012?) and this means that campaigns often have widespread support, but only for a short period of time. Charities such as Unicef have specifically asked for Facebook supporters to actually donate to them, as opposed to ‘liking’ a page or post: one of their posters literally reads: “Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio”. Research at the University of British Columbia suggested that if people can show support through social media, they are less likely to give meaningful support later on; engaging online satisfies the desire to ‘do good’. Meanwhile, temporary profile picture filters after the Paris attacks were criticised for prioritising European terrorist attacks over those occurring elsewhere in the world, as well as for their lack of real action.

However, slacktivists undoubtedly bring more attention to individual causes. ‘Voluntourism’ and ‘reductive seduction’ are much more likely to actively cause damage, while sharing a Guardian article about Syrian refugees will at least serve as a reminder of ongoing conflicts. Considering the time the average student spends on Facebook, it could be that it is the ideal platform to bring up global issues. Taking to Twitter to denounce slacktivism certainly doesn’t help to fundraise; perhaps energy would be better spent reading up on the conflicts these Facebook filters and article shares are addressing. The young and privileged may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but do have the resources and time to educate themselves about them.

Image: Elijah van der Giessen

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